Bwindi is home to half the world’s surviving population of Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Bwindi NP) lies in south-western Uganda, on the edge of the Rift Valley, along the border with DR Congo where it shares a boundary with Virunga National Park. It is part of the famous Virunga ranges whose mist-covered hills are blanketed by one of Africa’s oldest and most biologically diverse rain forests— the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Among East African forests, Bwindi has some of the richest populations of trees, small mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies, and moths. But it’s most famous residents are the giant Mountain Gorilla. Bwindi Forest is really old. It dates back over 25,000 years so it’s really old, but that’s not what’s so great about it. What’s so great about Bwindi is that it is the last remaining habitat of the world’s surviving population of Mountain Gorilla. That distinction is shared with two other parks on the Virunga ranges, of course, but Bwindi hosts more than 50% of the only Mountain Gorillas still alive today, and that makes Bwindi NP a really important destination.
Beyond the 340+ Mountain Gorilla protected by its borders, Bwindi NP hosts over 120 species of mammals, 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos, and many endangered species. Its forests contain over 400 species of plants (and counting) and Africa’s largest concentration of Mahogany trees. Because of its ecological importance, Bwindi NP was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is credited for its pivotal role in the effort to save the Mountain Gorilla from extinction. UNESCO describes it as “an isolated forest of outstanding biological richness”, but this “impenetrable forest” lives up to its name— it is accessible only on foot.
Bwindi National Park is most notable for the 340 Bwindi gorillas, half of the world’s population of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. An estimated 116 are habituated. Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species with an estimated total population of about 650 individuals. They are intelligent, majestic, gentle giants that share over 90% of their genetic material with humans. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mountain Gorillas were captured to begin a population of them in captive facilities. No baby gorillas survived in captivity.
All of Bwindi’s habituated gorillas are known individually by the rangers and have been given names in order to identify them. They seldom react to tourists but sitting only a few meters from a gorilla and looking into its soft brown eyes is a spine-tingling experience not easily forgotten. Permits must be booked in advance because they are on high demand year round.
Other primates in the park include the common Chimpanzee, L’Hoest’s Monkey, African Elephant, Black and White Colobus, Red-Tailed Monkey, Vervets, giant Forest Hog, and small Antelope. Among the predators are the Side-Striped Jackal, African Golden Cat and African Civet.
Bwindi National Park offers some of the finest bird watching in Africa. Its lush montane forest is a giant bird magnet, making it an unmissable destination for any birder visiting Uganda. With over 350 species recorded, including 23 endemic species like the Short-Tailed Warbler and Blue-Headed Sunbird, and plenty more being discovered by the day, it’s easy to see why Bwindi Forest is a must stop on any birding safari.
Globally threatened species such as African Green Broadbill and Shelley’s Crimsonwing are also found here. Other birds include the Handsome Francolin; Black-Billed Turaco; African Broadbill; Black and Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters; Western Green Tinkerbird; Purple-breasted, Blue-headed and Regal Sunbirds; Short-tailed and Black-faced Rufous Warblers; Mountain-Masked and Collared Apalis; Mountain and Yellow-Streaked Greenbuls; and Many-colored Bush-Shrike, among others.
In terms of flora, the park is among the most diverse forests in East Africa, with over 1,000 flowering plant species, including more than 220 tree species, (more than 50 percent of Uganda’s tree species) and more than 104 fern species. The most famous of the threatened plant species found here is the Brown Mahogany.
Bwindi National Park has developed ecotourism programmes that support community livelihoods, making it a model for integrating communities in sustainable resource management through East Africa. Selected gorilla families have been habituated to human presence but the number of visitors is tightly controlled to prevent degradation of the habitat, and risks to the gorillas. Revenues from gorilla tracking go to conservation efforts and supporting neighbouring communities.
Gorilla tracking limited to a maximum of 8 people per gorilla group, per day. Once a habituated gorilla family has been located, you can settle down for an hour to observe them as they feed and groom while their babies tumble about the undergrowth, all under the watchful gaze of a fierce Silverback male.
Birding takes place along the Buhoma Waterfall Trail and the Mubwindi Swamp trail in Ruhija. The varied habitats of Bwindi attract over 350 recorded species. Easy to see are the African Emerald Cuckoo, Common Bulbul, African Blue and White-tailed Blue Flycatchers and Red-headed Bluebill.
Mountain biking follows a well-maintained trail from the park headquarters at Buhoma to the Ivi River. Along this 13km trail you may see wildlife such as Bushbucks, Black-and-White Colobus and Red-Tailed Monkeys. The six-seven hour round trip departs in the morning and is organized by Buhoma Community Rest Camp under the Ride for a Woman community development initiative.
There are six main nature trails in Bwindi for those who wish to explore the “impenetrable forest”: Muyanga Waterfall Walk, Rushura Hill Walk, Muzubijiro Loop, the Ivi River Walk, Buhoma-Nkuringo Trail, Habinyanja (Railegh) Trail. Depending on which trail you take, there are sightings of waterfalls, views of the Virungas and far-off features like Lake Edward and Lake George, and the rare opportunity to walk in a forest shared by two countries.
There are a number of community walks with visits to a traditional homestead, a traditional healer, cultural performances, and opportunities to observe or participate in traditional crafts like brewing, blacksmithing, etc.
The range of accommodation around Bwindi is bewildering and there are many places where you can still access gorilla trekking sites from outside the forest. The first thing that you must consider is getting to and from your tracking site. The distances may look short on a map but the roads are twisty and slow going in the dry season and sometimes as impenetrable as the forest itself in the wet! Here, we’ve listed accommodation according to tracking site.
One of the first places to have habituated gorillas, it is naturally home to some of the most well established lodges in Uganda. With 24 tracking permits available daily and in close proximity to Kihihi airstrip and Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth NP, it remains a firm favourite with tourists.
Buhoma Lodge (WWW.UGANDAEXCLUSIVECAMPS.COM, RESERVATIONS@UGANDAEXCLUSIVECAMPS.COM), is a very well run and very cosy lodge which is at the top end of accommodation here. It has stunning views and great food and a lovely warm fire to ward off the evening chills and share tales of your days’ activities around.
Situated within the gates of the national park is Buhoma Community Restcamp (HTTP://WWW.BUHOMACOMMUNITY.COM, firstname.lastname@example.org) with a range of budget to lower mid-range options and with forest views. There are also a number of activities besides gorilla tracking to do here such as community visits and Batwa cultural experiences.
In the mid-range you will find Buhoma Community Haven (HTTP://WWW.BUHOMACOMMUNITY.COM, HAVENLODGEBUHOMA@GMAIL.COM) and upper-mid range there is the very comfortable Engagi Lodge (WWW.ENGAGILODGE.COM, INFO@KIMBLA-MANTANAUGANDA.COM)
Ruhija also has 24 permits and is also very popular with tourists as it is relatively accessible to Ishasha as well as Lake Bunyonyi and tarmac roads. It is also quite high at well over 2000m altitude. The accommodation here tends to more mid-range but there is some cracking good value to be had.
Cuckooland (WWW.BWINDICUCKOOLAND.COM, email@example.com) is about 15km from the HQ at Ruhija and, as the name suggests, a little different! It is a rustic tented camp nestled down on the edge of the forest. The views of the forest are uninterrupted and amazing and there is a swimming pond for the brave and 10 acres of beautiful, natural gardens and woodland. It is regularly visited by chimpanzees and monkeys and an incredible number of forest and farmland bird species. The facilities are very comfortable if a little quirky, the atmosphere unique and the food fresh and scrumptious. But be warned it is a 10-15 minute very steep walk between the car park and the lodge so they will need a heads-up 30 minutes before you arrive. We love it!
Closer to Ruhija HQ, but still a drive away from the bustling village (it’s not really that bustling but these things are relative!) Broadbill Camp is a tented camp sited between farmland, forestry and natural forest. The views lack the drama and beauty of Cuckooland, but the safari tents on their stilted platforms are of a good quality and the service is very attentive. The raised up bar also offers good views of the surroundings and overall it is very good value for money.
Bakiga Lodge (WWW.BAKIGALODGE.ORG, firstname.lastname@example.org) is in the centre of Ruhija Village and very close to the tracking start point. It is a more traditional lodge with good views across farmland and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest itself.
Just down the road from Bakiga and a little more pocket friendly is Trekkers Tavern (WWW.TREKKERSTAVERN.COM, MUTEBBEHASSAN@YAHOO.COM) It has spacious well appointed cabins set beneath eucalyptus trees and a cavernous bar restaurant with views of the forest.
Rushaga has the most permits available and so attracts a good number of visitors, especially in the high season when other places get quite busy. It is that bit deeper into the hills and so that bit further from Kampala and Queen Elizabeth NP. The roads can be quite tricky in the wet so take care!
Often you arrive at a place and think “wow, that’s a nice view” and you look at it for 10 minutes or so and move on. At Chameleon Hill (WWW.CHAMELEONHILL.COM, WELCOME@CHAMELEONHILL.COM) you could be stuck for a few days looking down on Lake Mutanda and the Virunga Mountains behind. All the cottages have the great view too and the welcome is friendly and the food great. The cottages are not cheap but there are a few budget rooms available at a great price (although the great view is restricted to the up market cottages, but you still get to enjoy it from the lodge). It’s about an hour from Rushaga so be prepared for an early start, but worth it.
Rushaga Gorilla Camp (HTTPS://RUSHAGA.COM, INFO@RUSHAGA.COM) has a great range of options that extend from camping to budget rooms and even mid-range cabins. It has views that better many more expensive lodges and although it is a little antiseptic in places, and the food is only OK, you cannot argue with the value for money here. It’s very close to the tracking start point too.
Back down at the amazingly beautiful Lake Mutanda, Mutanda Lake Resort (WWW.MUTANDALAKERESORT.COM, INFO@MUTANDALAKERESORT.COM) is nestled on small peninsular on, the lake. The lakeside cabins are very well appointed and the restaurant is excellent and the views of the mountains and lake are great.
Nshogi Camp (HTTP://WWW.NSHONGICAMP.ALTERVISTA.ORG, NSHOGICAMP@GMAIL.COM) is a locally owned camp in a lovely rural setting right by the forest at Rushaga. It offers a range of camping and small banda style accommodation and definitely pocket friendly.
Nkuringo is the least accessible gorilla tracking spot with the fewest available permits which gives it a certain allure but all the same it remains the least popular. Correspondingly the lodging options are the most restricted (although it can be reached from Lake Mutanda Resort and Chameleon Hill Lodge and from lodges at Rushaga).
Award winning, wonderful views, great everything and expensive (with a capital ‘E’), Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge (HTTP://WWW.WILDPLACESAFRICA.COM/OUR-LODGES-CAMPS/CLOUDS/, INFO@WILDPLACESAFRICA.COM) is really very, very good. Wow!
Wagtail Eco-Safari Camp while hard to contact, has a good range of well prices accommodation options in a very pleasant setting.
It’s unfair to compare Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge (WWW.MOUNTAINGORILLALODGE.COM, BWINDI@NKURINGOLODGES.COM) with Clouds and in many areas this may well have been our favourite. It is well priced and with great views and very good service.
Just down the road from Bwindi is Uganda’s other gorilla tracking site at Mgahingha National Park. Part of the beautiful Virunga Range it is a lovely place to track gorillas and has the advantage of being on tarmac road all the way from Kampala (we almost-the last bit isn’t). For the budget conscious it is also blessed with a host of great value budget guesthouses in nearby Kisoro. Naturally these lack the views of some of the other lodges, but you can’t argue with the price!
We’d again go with Chameleon Hill Lodge here.
As mentioned there are a great many to choose from in Kisoro but we like Mucha Bistro & Guesthouse (HTTP://HOTEL-MUCHA.COM/BISTROANDGUESTHOUSE/) on the main drag in Kisoro. It’s clean and tidy with nice little rooms and reliable hot water. The bistro is OK too.
Right by the main entrance to the park is the luxury Mount Gahinga Lodge (HTTPS://VOLCANOESSAFARIS.COM/MOUNT-GAHINGA-LODGE-UGANDA/). This is a high quality lodge with lovely open fires and a rustic charm set right next to the forested mountains.
Altitude: 1,160m – 2,607m above sea level.
Bwindi was gazetted as a National Park in 1991 and declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1994.
The Mubare gorilla group was the first to become available for tourism in Uganda in April 1993. Nine groups are now habituated for tourism, and one for research.
Spread over a series of steep ridges and valleys, Bwindi is the source of five major rivers, which flow into Lake Edward.
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